The war in Libya, after months of stalemate, has heated up again. There is some evidence that the troops led by Gen. Haftar have been gaining some ground in Tripoli and other areas held by the Tripoli government. The reason for this turn of events appears to be Russia.
The civil war in Syria was going rapidly south for Assad’s Damascus government and their Iranian allies–until Russia stepped in and turned the tide. So, it appears that this is what Russia is now doing in Libya. A week ago there were reports that Russian special forces were aiding Haftar’s troops probably as advisors embedded within Haftar’s units.
Al-jazeera has reported on the morning of 11 November that Haftar’s forces are now being trained by Russians in Egypt on an Egyptian military base. They have also reported that Sudanese units have now been aiding Haftar’s troops as well, though the Sudanese government has denied it.
Why is Russia taking an interest in Libya? And why did they choose Haftar’s side?
First of all, we should review for readers the who is who in the Libyan debacle. The government based in Tripoli, in the far west of the country that Gen. Haftar is fighting against, is the “official” Libyan government as recognized by the EU and the UN. As can be expected by any side of a dispute favored by the EU and the UN, it hosts a who’s who of international terrorism, including al-Qaeda lynchpin Saif al-‘Adel, the mastermind of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in east Africa. The Tripoli government is essentially a creature of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).
Most of Tripoli’s fighting forces are composed of militia’s made-up of ISIS, al-Qaeda, Ansar ash-Shari’a, and MB types. It is supported militarily and financially by two of the world’s top three terrorism sponsoring states #1 Turkey, and #3 Qatar. Even #2 Iran has chipped in a little with some weapons deliveries.
Gen. Haftar’s group, based in Libya’s second largest city, Benghazi, located in the far eastern part of the country near the Egyptian border, is supported by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The French (to the chagrin of their EU neighbors) have also chipped in with a small number of advisors embedded into Gen. Haftar’s forces.
Russia, though it sells weapons to terror-sponsoring state Iran, considered Sunni terrorism to be the greater threat since most of the Muslims in the Caucasus and Russia’s soft underbelly are Sunnis. This was one of the reasons why they entered the war against ISIS in Syria. For example ISIS fighters of Caucasus origin went to Syria and Iraq to gain battle experience, then returned to join Ukraine’s war against Russian-speaking separatists in Eastern Ukraine.
Libya is also rich in oil. Russia is one of the world’s leading exporters of oil and gas and doesn’t need that resource for themselves, but Putin appears to trying to gain as much of a choke hold over that resource as possible having recently gained control of most of Iran’s oil assets, in addition to the right to build a pair of massive naval bases and an airbase in Iran. Also, as a price for aiding Assad in his war, he forced Assad to grant Russia rights to all Syrian oil rights off its Mediterranean coast. Putin’s venture in Libya might be more of the same. There is also the possibility of gaining military bases there as well, once the civil war is over.
Russia could possibly have gained these goodies regardless of which side it supported, but its dislike of Sunni terrorism, and its new-found friendship with “moderate” Arab countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia may have pushed it to support Haftar.
The Egyptian angle is interesting and raises two interesting points. After Obama helped place an MB government in power in Cairo, then after it was deposed, attempted to undermine the post-MB government down, so as to bring the MB back to power. Part of Obama’s efforts included withholding arms shipments as a quid pro quo.
The Obama experience taught the Egyptians that they could not depend exclusively on the United States for their arms purchases. So, they began to diversify, not just from the usual European suppliers, but also Russia. Trump’s recent betrayal of the Kurds scared the living devil out of all of the West-leaning countries in the Middle East, from Israel to Egypt to Saudi Arabia. It delivered a message that America just cannot be relied on in a pinch, so best to begin looking elsewhere for support and arms purchases.
Saudi Arabia has also recently grown closer to Russia in the wake of Trump’s perceived weakness vis-à-vis Iran, and his seemingly irrational, and constant, flip-flopping on Middle East issues. During the Cold War, Saudi Arabia, as a “religious” nation, considered the officially athiest Soviet Union to be enemy #1. They never recognized the USSR, and always considered it, and its representatives, to be “untouchables.” Even after the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the USSR, Saudi Arabia continued to keep Russia at arms length. This feeling of hostility has been maintained by Russia’s support of Iran.
However, Trump’s recent irrational behaviors (particularly his invitation to Turkey to invade Syria and ethnic cleanse the place) have terrified the Saudis and resulted in the aged, bent-over King Salman making a recent trip to Moscow to signify their improved relations. It was shortly after that trip that the reports of active Russian military help to Gen. Haftar began to appear in the Arabic media.
We may be seeing Saudi Arabia also begin to diversify their arms purchases to include Russia, among others.
One more interesting tidbit about the Libyan thing: Russia and Turkey, pretend allies in Syria, are openly supporting opposing sides in the Libyan war. I predict that this will soon become a more intense “proxy war” between the two. Unfortunately though, it will never escalate to the point of a full scale, direct, nation-to-nation war between Russia and Turkey as long as we are stupid enough to keep Turkey in NATO.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (composed of Kurds, Christians, and other minorities) whom we turned our backs on and which then allied with Assad’s Damascus Forces) have, in conjunction with Assad’s forces, retaken some areas in Hasaka, in eastern Syria, after defeating Turkish-supported terrorist groups. There have been other scattered reports of Turks and regular Syrian army units firing upon each other.
This puts Putin in a difficult position because he is allied to the Assad government, but has also made an agreement with Erdogan for joint Russian and Turkish patrols in eastern Syria. This has infuriated Assad who considered that to be a Turkish invasion of Syrian territory and a Russian surrender to Erdogan’s imperial dreams similar to Trump’s.
To further strain matters between Moscow and Damascus, Putin has also floated ideas on a new constitution for Syria which includes greater autonomy for the regions, and giving the regions more say in the Damascus government. There are rumors floating in the Middle East that Putin might be ready to offer (as part of this over all deal) a Damascus government sans Assad (the number one demand of all rebel groups) in turn for the removal of Turkish and Iranian forces.
One is tempted to see Saudi and Egyptian (and possibly Israeli) hands in that proposal, coming in the wake of Egypt and Saudi Arabia stepping up their relations with Moscow. Unfortunately, the primary stumbling block to any such “federated Syria” solution giving the regions more autonomy, and driving Iranians and Turks out, is Trump’s bromance with Erdogan and his acceptance of Turkey’s aggression and occupation of Syrian territory.
ISIS, currently enjoying a recruiting and donations boom thanks to Trump’s irrational Syria behavior, has redefined itself as a “decentralized” organization as opposed to the “centralized” state organization it pursued as a “Caliphate.” As one of the features of the next phase ISIS has called upon its supporters in America and Europe to set forest fires where ever they can as a way to weaken the enemy’s economy.
Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC’s al-quds division, and perhaps the most powerful man in Iran outside of the Mullah’s clique, recently contributed the laugher of the week. Soleimani claimed that Iran defeated ISIS won the Syrian war single handedly and that Iran has established stable states in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
The facts: As the anti-Assad revolution gained ground and looked like it was on the verge of collapse, and after Obama’s redline was crossed with no reaction from the U.S., Iran stepped in to save its ally. But even with the help of Iran’s puppet Hizbollah next door in Lebanon, and the help of Iran-subservient Shi’a militia from Iraq, Iran was totally incapable of stemming the tide.
So, it is rich to hear Soleimani talk like that when it was he who (when the Damascus government was hanging on the barest of threads) rushed off to Moscow to beg Putin to come to the rescue. It was Putin’s entry into the war, and the Russian airforce’s bombing of the ISIS oil assets (that Obama refused to touch) that turned the tide in the war. Then it was Trump’s turning General Mattis loose, and the latter’s close cooperation with the Kurd-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces that put the finishing touches on the Caliphate.
As for the “stable” governments in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria . . . as I write this the Arab Spring 2.0 is going full blast in Iraq and Lebanon with country-wide demonstrations, riots, and outright revolt taking place. The demonstrations in both countries have a decided anti-Iran flavor as the people there have grown tired of Iranian hegemony, and control of their affairs–even the Shi’as in southern Iraq. In fact, it is among the Shi’a of southern Iraq where we see the most virulent anti-Iranian protests with the protestors burning pictures of Khamenei and Khomeini.
Iran has given orders to its clients in Iraq and Lebanon to put a stop to the demonstrations at all costs. Iranian stooges in both countries have used live rounds to break-up otherwise peaceful demonstrations which has led to increased anger by the populace and violence by them in turn.
As for Syria, well there are still thousands of active ISIS fighters left in the country, and Turkey is committing genocide and demographic replacements in the parts of the country nearest to its border, with more demands for ever more territory to be forthcoming from Erdogan, the 21st century’s Hitler.
Barry Webb has logged a 25-year career as an Arabist for the NSA, has two MA degrees in related subject matter, and is currently a Senior Fellow with Americans for Intelligence Reform www.intelreform.org. He is the author of Confessions of an (ex) NSA spy: Why America and its Allies are Losing the War on Terror. His website is www.barrywebbauthor.com